Women are gathered around a table in a small tea room. They tell jokes, and laugh with ease. They share cake in celebration of their birthdays and children’s graduation. Yet this is no ordinary meeting of friends. These women wash, recite over, and shroud the deceased. Beyond the walls that shelter their laughter and conversation are the many graves of Muslim dead.
Ethnomusicologist Denise Gill, assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Music and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, conducted 18 months of research on the labor of “deathwork” in Turkey. She worked alongside women deathworkers as they cared for the bodies of female deceased of all ages. Her current book project, Aurality and the Craft of Deathwork, shows that even in death, the body—and those who care for it—is embroiled in multiple layers of gendered and political signification. Gill presented her research at a recent Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows lunch.
Gill explained that more than just “corpse-washing,” Muslim deathwork is an intimate craft and a form of care work. It combines tactile, acoustic and affective practices that express a unique, Islamic mode of piety. Deathworkers wash and prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial, transitioning them through a liminal threshold with water made sacred through the use of breath and voice. On this liminal threshold, the body is perceived as a sensate subject. Deathworkers maintain an implicit knowledge that the deceased can still hear: Gill terms this “posthumous aurality.”
In Turkey, deathwork has always been monitored and protected, even by secular governments, as an Islamic practice. Deathworkers perform their labors in state-run facilities called gasılhane-s. Gill carried out long-term participant observation in a gasılhane in Istanbul’s Karacaahmet cemetery. The largest cemetery in Turkey, Karacaahmet is a place of religious, historical, political and cultural significance. Here, mourners tend to intergenerational family plots, hundreds of years old. Here, crowds gather to pay homage at the graves of Muslim theologians and spiritual leaders. It is here, near the center of this cemetery, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan controversially unearthed a plot for his own parents.
This politically loaded space of death is also one that is highly gendered. The caskets of the deceased are officially marked with pink and blue tags and other gendered adornments. Deathwork itself is crucially segregated by gender.
“Affectively laden scenes of deathwork are places in which Turkish hegemony is naturalized. Women care for girl children, infants and women,” Gill said.
Yet, in the intimate spaces of the gasılhane, this gendered hegemony is also contested. In Turkey, a segregated system of deathwork means that female deathworkers care for women-identifying individuals, and may find themselves in encounters with queer and trans women for whom the category of womanhood is generally denied in Turkey.
These practices are not uncontroversial. Gill has received criticism for her portrayal of these women from different political camps, including feminist Marxists who critique deathworkers for being supporters of Erdoǧan and the Turkish state.
Gill explained, “We may interpret women deathworkers as participating in some forms of political transgression, but they definitively do not see themselves that way. They see themselves as following state ideology and being good Muslim women."
“We may interpret women deathworkers as participating in some forms of political transgression, but they definitively do not see themselves that way. They see themselves as following state ideology and being good Muslim women."
Nevertheless, she argued that their embodied acts of care are a form of everyday politics, highlighting the multiple meanings and practices of feminism.
Likewise, for Gill, who worked alongside these women and was able to gain access as a Muslim herself, doing ethnographic research is an embodied and political act. Her own bodily experiences became a form of “knowing.” For example, Gill began to suffer health effects as a result of her work to care for the bodies of deceased and drowned refugees along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. These illnesses have resulted in long-term and chronic issues affecting her lungs, vocal folds and respiratory system. At the same time, the toll this work has taken on her body makes clear the intensity of emotional and physical labor that deathwork demands. It highlights the risks faced by deathworkers and others who are working to address the refugee crisis.
“The craft of deathwork is also about cultivating and transmitting counter hegemonic practices. Doing deathwork in Turkey today necessarily means doing deathwork for refugees," she said.
Nevertheless, the labor of deathwork also forges connections among the living. Returning to the scene in the tea room, of women chatting over cake during moments of respite, Gill said, “They tell funny stories and we make ourselves full of joy, because deathworkers know that we live in a life-death continuum. Doing deathwork is fundamentally about how to live.”